The Unintended Consequences of:

Someone once told us that ‘policy can only ever react to change,’ suggesting that policy-making must always play catch-up to private sector innovation. We didn’t agree — while one cannot predict the future, anticipating the future is a feasible and fruitful activity. To explore this further, we designed a tool called Unintended Consequences to help us anticipate change, and tested it out on Autonomous Vehicles. What follows are a series of possible Unintended Consequences of Autonomous Vehicles on the urban environment — in some cases we’ve used our home city, Glasgow, as an example.

Before diving straight into the consequences of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), it is worth acknowledging the core differences between human-driven vehicles of today and the AVs of tomorrow. Commonly accepted projections, like those listed immediately below, often end up being the focal point of discussions about the future. Instead, we see these as jumping off points — points from which we can start thinking about the more complex, less imagined futures, which help us to start having a meaningful discussion about the kind of changes we want to see.

The four core differences that set up our scenarios are speed, cost, attention and safety.

Speed

When humans no longer drive, two things are radically reduced: stopping distance and traffic. Half of stopping distance at 20mph and a fifth at 70mph is accountable to human reaction time. When replacing a driver with an algorithm, the maximum safe speed increases. Similarly, traffic currently has a stop-start style of movement and traffic lights at junctions allow only one lane at a time to pass. Both of these are traffic behaviours that algorithms can eliminate, reducing time spent at low speeds or idling. The same principle can be applied to tailbacks caused by traffic accidents (drivers are the cause of around  94% of road accidents).

Cost

The commonly accepted model for autonomous vehicles is that few people will actually own one. Cars today have incredibly low utilisation rates, spending 95% of their life cycle parked, however, through using a fleet model, where citizens access cars instead of owning them, AVs are likely to have much higher utilisation costs. With this increase in utilisation, we can expect a much lower cost of operation — as a comparison, think of the cost of a bus or a taxi minus the cost of the human driver.

attention

Since the commuter does not need to drive, their attention is liberated to more fruitful activities that make the journey more enjoyable — studies show that commuters who take public transport are happier than those who drive. As time travelling can be put to productive use, commuters’ sensitivities to journey lengths are likely to decrease.

safety

When the blame for a crash can be pointed at an algorithm that belongs to a car manufacturer, you can be sure that they will do all they can to make it as safe as possible. Despite the high number of road accident deaths per year (37,133 in the US in 2017 for example), we collectively shrug this off since 94% of car crashes today are attributable to human error. However, when there is no individual to point the blame at, we demand justice for the deaths of innocents. Already this can be seen in the heightened attention given to the 5 deaths (4 in the US and 1 in China) that have occurred whilst the Tesla Autopilot was engaged.

While it could be said that riders were overjoyed with the benefits the autonomous vehicle brought, the same could not be said about big retail. The retailers that had built their empires of many small local stores near transport hubs and thoroughfares were the first to disappear. Following quickly in their footsteps were those who were too slow to adjust their presence to online, and who failed to maximise delivered-to-your-door models.

As riders built up a tolerance for distance, and autonomous vehicles made next hour deliveries a reality, they started to get much more picky and intentional about where they went for their daily shopping. Stumbling into the local convenience store on the way home from work was a thing of the past, and instead the independent grocers in the neighbouring area was much more likely to get a visit. Similarly, the idea of spending hours trawling around a plethora of different clothing stores seemed laughable compared to the ease of having the equivalent of the fitting room delivered to you at home. 


As people make the crucial transition from driving cars to riding in cars, relationship with space, distance, and time will shift. Regaining hours of lost productive time each day, people will experience a liberation of their attention, massively reducing the opportunity cost of time spent travelling, and thus increasing tolerance to travelling long distances. This, coupled with a developing logistics infrastructure will likely have a profound impact on brick and mortar retail, and will threaten/challenge, not just businesses, but whole retail districts whose value is dependant on convenience by proximity.

Like many other major cities, Glasgow’s city and city centre strategies are heavily reliant on maintaining the city as a retail hub; the current city centre strategy outlines in its 50-year vision that Glasgow aims to be the ‘top UK retail centre outside of London’s West End.’

Placing all their eggs in the basket of the status quo vision of retail needs to be reconsidered in anticipation of considerable changes likely to be brought about by AV’s. In a scenario where convenience by proximity loses its value, retail districts like the ‘Style Mile’ will need to quickly adapt to avoid leaving a vacuum in city centres. Consider reducing reliance on retail (and retail districts), and prepare for a changing retail landscape by diversifying the use of central city space with other commercial activities as well as social or cultural activities. 


“It was easy to predict mass car ownership but hard to predict Walmart.”

— Carl Sagan

This apparent Carl Sagan quote speaks to the wave of unintended consequences brought about by the automotive revolution, and the role that cars have played in shaping the environment. In the same way that cars allowed for the out-of-town megastore or shopping centre, so too will autonomous vehicles reshape the retail industry of tomorrow. 

The most notable example of the consequences of cheaper deliveries is the impact of Deliveroo, JustEat and UberEats on restaurants, fast food, takeaways. Higher quality eateries can reach more people, some even morphing into so-called ‘Dark Kitchens’ to satisfy this shifting landscape.



— Shop online with Amazon alternatives

Time = A couple extra minutes per online purchase
Cost = Same (sometimes cheaper!)

Amazon won’t be the only to benefit from the autonomous revolution. Using Amazon like a search engine and then purchasing direct from sellers (who are more likely to pay their taxes and treat staff fairly) is becoming more widespread. Alternatively, search for alternative ethical suppliers of product categories.

— SUPPORT MEANWHILE SPACES

Time = Low (support a space) to High (set up a space)
Cost = Variable

‘Meanwhile Spaces’ are empty retail units where the use of temporary contracts are allowing community groups, small businesses or individuals to move in and set up shop, on the understanding that they will leave within an allotted time. Find meanwhile spaces nearby and support them in order to help build a case for new kinds of use for these underused ‘retail spaces,’ or take advantage of any local support to set up a meanwhile space yourself.
At first, there was a medley of transport services. Car brands, ride-sharing services, data companies, and AI startups had all pitched in. Each had their own unique offering, but over time the AV space became a fevered battleground and the smaller services were picked off or acquired one-by-one. When the dust settled, there was just a handful of private companies which had established their dominance over the roads. With this newfound power, they discovered a new muscle; now, not only did they have control of the roads, but crucially, they also had control of the way traffic moved. 

Soon after, riders saw ‘premium subscriptions’ being advertised, but at the extortionate prices most ignored them, besides the perks of premium weren’t particularly obvious. But little by little riders noticed small changes to their commutes — it seemed to take longer, there were a few lanes in the road which always seemed empty, and at peak times it seemed like someone else always got picked up immediately while you waited. It took a moment to put two and two together, but when the first luxury vehicle with tinted windows whooshed past in the rush hour migration it was clear that the roads, once a cornerstone of public infrastructure, had been invaded by corporate interests.



As we move away from vehicle ownership and towards autonomous, access-based transport systems, not only are we outsourcing the day-to-day admin and maintenance associated with vehicle ownership, but we’re also collectively letting go of the control we have of the flow of traffic. Existing analogues (ridesharing and on-demand transportation services) are already exerting their influence on how the road is used, controlling supply and demand with tools like surge pricing. As private entities gain more control over the flow of traffic, there is a danger that access to the road, one of the most central pieces of public infrastructure, will no longer be equitable.

While current public transport systems aim to provide equitable access through good coverage of a city, there is little incentive for private transport companies to do the same, and areas or communities which aren’t profitable will likely suffer from massive inequalities of access. There is a unique opportunity for public bodies to preemptively address this challenge through implementing policy which prevents monopolisation, whilst supporting, nurturing, or partnering with efforts to provide an equitable autonomous transport system. A great example of success here is UK local councils’ work in supporting Co-wheels, a car club operating as a social enterprise working to develop and improve access to car use. 


In Russia a ‘special highway’ links the Kremlin with Vladimir Putin’s residence 14 miles outside Moscow, and is reserved for the use of the political elite. In the same way that political power has influenced the use of the roads in Moscow at the expense of citizens, so too may corporate power influence the use of the road at the expense of the poor.

This future is with us in a small way today in the form of Uber’s surge charges and rumours of further pricing discrimination. Particularly during key moments of public transport stress – triggered by breakdowns or adverse weather – those who are willing to pay the extortionate surge pricing can continue on their day, whilst others must make-do with second-rate service.

— #deleteuber

Time = 1 minute
Cost = £0

Finding other mobility options or ride-hailing services means helping to stop a company that has more or less promised its investors a monopoly. There are plenty of other options out there, from replacing some of your transport needs with a car club, or simply finding a more local ride-hailing service.
With a trip to the shops, office or pub costing less than a cup of coffee, city-dwellers were quickly giving up on public transport and opting for a more convenient means of door-to-door travel. 

At first, this was a novel luxury. What were once monotonous commutes and tiring errands were now much simpler, faster and more productive. But soon the culture of door-to-door travel started to show its dark side. Without the walk to the local bus stop or the dash to the supermarket, the daily ten thousand steps seemed a much more challenging goal. In addition, the constant trips between a few known locations, and an obsession with travelling from A to B as efficiently as possible was making people lonely — serendipitous encounters, chance discovery, and spontaneity all seemed to be relics of the past. 

With sedentary lifestyles being the primary contributing factor to several of the major chronic diseases, health care professionals were alarmed to see that autonomous vehicles were causing a surge in the amount of time populations were spending on their backside. Not only that, but the sharp rise in depression and loneliness had crept in through the blindspot of a world enthralled by the sheer convenience of autonomous travel, yet oblivious to its isolating effects. By the time the NHS noticed the spiralling human and economic costs of AVs to its overburdened service, it was already too late.




The massive reduction in price-per-mile of autonomous vehicles is likely to significantly impact the choices people make around their daily commute. While this may not eradicate the demand for public transport, it is likely that there will be a notable increase in the people choosing to use private vehicles to get them from door-to-door.

Currently, the bulk of the conversation around AVs’ impact on health is focussed on collisions and collision prevention. While AVs are likely to offset health problems, as well as injuries and deaths which are related to pollution and car accidents, more reliance on door-to-door transport is likely to increase the amount of time spent sitting, a factor which contributes massively to the chronic conditions which kill most people in the world. In addition to the consequences to physical health, there will likely also be some consequences for citizens’ mental health — as more and more people directly travel between known destinations, their potential to add to their social circles will contract, contributing to more loneliness and depression.

Initiatives focussed directly on transportation might consider investing in public autonomous transport systems, more social forms of autonomous transport (think ridesharing meets BumbleBFF), and/or multimodal transportation that enables a combination of walking, cycling, private AVs and public AVs. 

Effective transport systems need mobility solutions and urban planning to support one another.  Good urban planning should emphasise walkability (see the 'Sprawling Autonomous Cities' consequence) and encouraging serendipitous interactions on a local level. Interactions can be encouraged through community allotments on disused land and continuation of the brilliant Green Health work demonstrating the cost-benefit of natural spaces in alleviation mental health issues.


The invention of the personal computer has had a massive impact on the world, and one of its many unintended consequences has been on the nature of childhood play. While childhood previously involved more outdoor and social forms of play, in the digital age play is much more solitary and sedentary. In much the same way that personal computing has changed social and physical activity for children, AVs have the potential to massively change social and physical habits of adults.

The author Yuval Noah Harari argues that the invention of agriculture, while proclaimed as a great leap forward for humanity, was actually an illusion of progress and instead contributed to increased inequality, longer working hours, and new ailments such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. The invention of agriculture is a great example of a progress trap, a condition in which the pursuit of perceived progress introduces problems for which there isn’t the resource or will to solve — once you build a system around progress trap technology, such as AV’s, it is near impossible to go back. 

— Track your habits

Time = 5 mins
Cost = Free with a Smartphone

Through self-tracking things like your daily steps and location, you are likely to build an awareness of how external factors influence your habits. When you change jobs, and have a different commute, take a look at how your data has changed, and try to diagnose what it is that’s causing habit changes. What gets measured gets managed.

— Carry Waterproofs

Time = 5 mins
Cost = £5 to £35

It has started raining and you left this morning without any sensible waterproof. Let’s face it, catching a taxi looks like an attractive option right now? Make that easy choice harder by making sure you always have a mac in a sac on you at all times to benefit from urban walking come rain or shine.

— Make your city a National Park City

Time = Low (sign a petition) to High (set up campaign yourself)
Cost = Free

After five years of campaigning, London became the first National Park City in July 2019. This creates a platform for protecting green spaces, advocating for more and providing a focal point for allowing residents to find out how to take advantage of their green spaces more easily – all contributing to better mental and physical health in urban environments. The next city with its eyes on National Park City status is Glasgow.

With the stress of city living and an increasing allure of being closer to nature, inner-city residents did what they thought was only right and fled. It was both an economic argument and an emotional one. With transport being cheaper and easier than ever thanks to autonomous vehicles, the commute was suddenly useful time that could be used to kick back and have breakfast, get a bit of extra work done, or sneak in that addictive Netflix episode during the journey. This was the rationale that motivated many residents to up sticks and move to the burbs in the promise of that life of wellbeing they saw in their Instagram feeds. The major homebuilders were quick to pick up on this, building sprawling new housing estates in which everyone could get their little square of walled garden – where distance didn’t matter because those fancy autonomous vehicles make it just so easy to get to the nearby yoga studio or take a spontaneous trip to the countryside pub. 

Even when people noticed that their sought-after greenbelt was being eaten up by low-density housing and journeys that used to walked or cycled were increasingly being made by AVs, nobody couldn’t stand in the face of achieving ‘the lifestyle.’ “Swap your tiny house plants for a real garden” was the oft-repeated persuasion over a raw lunch or almond milk flat white, “escape the ‘Glasgow Effect’ – go on, it’s good for your health.”




The trifecta of faster journey times, reduced cost per distance travelled, and a decreased sensitivity to travel times can be thought of as a spark, which when added to a potent tinderbox, will trigger rapid change. That potent tinderbox of today is high house prices that has made it harder to afford mortgages, resulting in smaller living arrangements. This urbanisation and decrease in living spaces is resulting in a yearning for green spaces and nature. An obvious indicator of this is the explosive growth for houseplants that has taken over every trendy household (trendy households often being the precursor for overly expensive housing). This yearning for greenery and nature will contribute to the allure of peri-urban living.


AVs might make suburbia more of an option, however it is not the only future open to us. AVs also make the case for a turbocharged public transport system and facilitating a true sharing economy. The city of Helsinki is supporting a collaboration between Muji and Finnish AV company Sensible 4 on the implementation of an all-weather autonomous shuttle bus in the city of Espoo. The project envisions an approach to autonomous transport which promotes shared mobility, and enhances the experience of urban life. Urban planners and policy makers can promote similar infrastructure such as (autonomous) public transport and walkability that makes our cities more sustainable and enjoyable for all.



Urban density is intrinsically linked to technologies that create ease of movement. Steel frame construction and the elevator proved to be the primary engine of urban density over the last century through enabling vertical exploration, whilst cars and trains enabled cities to spread horizontally.

To see the future of cities designed for vehicles over people in the world today, we need only look to the United States. Cities like Atlanta, Cape Coral in Florida and Los Angeles have created lifestyles dependent on vehicles and a severe lack of opportunity for those who can’t afford one.

— Participate in your community

Time = 1 or 2 hours a week
Cost = Free

Lean into the benefits that the city can offer: a strong presence of community. For example, GoodGym gives you the opportunity to replace your (let’s face it, boring) gym workout with participating in group trash-cleanup runs or gardening for an elder neighbour. By investing energy in our community we make high density living a dream, not a drag.

— Start a Baugruppen project

Time = Years
Cost = Your mortgage

If you have a mortgage, lots of time, an appetite for project management and know other like-minded urban visionaries then you have all the ingredients for starting a Baugruppen or “building group”. Fed up with substandard housing, these building groups pool together a collective mortgage to buy land, hire an architect and construct a building that houses everyone separately, yet with shared spaces for co-living. Not for the faint-hearted.

As autonomous vehicles started to become the norm, it became clear just how much of the city had been built around the car. City dwellers were delighted to see much of it start to disappear, rejoicing at the dismantling of unattractive billboards, followed soon after by the clearing of signposts, traffic lights, and electric car charging points, all of which were being increasingly referred to as ‘roadside clutter.’
 
As the city morphed to adapt to this new technology, roads got thinner, and most forms of inner-city parking became redundant; roadside parking, multi-storey car parks, supermarket car parks, underground garages all now opened up, ready for a new use, full of promise and possibility. 

Citizens were excited, and there was no shortage of public imagination around what this swathe of new space might be used for — parks, walkways, community gardens, playgrounds, and outdoor cinemas were all keenly anticipated. It was soon clear that this was not to be. Most of these now-defunct sites were in private hands, closed off to public intervention, and instead were being sold off to developers for a quick buck. The public’s dreams were slowly being crushed, replaced by buildings which looked awfully similar to a low-cost student housing block.





Much of the physical infrastructure in cities have been built around cars. Some pieces of infrastructure were created to influence the behaviour of the driver — signs, traffic lights, speed cameras, and road bumps will all be removed, or else replaced with more integrated and hidden infrastructure that can communicate with the car. Other infrastructure was built to service the needs of the car such as car washes, petrol stations, charging ports, on-street and off-street parking. With the high utilisation of AV’s, there will be a massive reduction in the total number of vehicles, and the number of stationary vehicles during peak times. Vehicles will likely be recharged in moments when they are stationary, and it would make little economic sense for this to happen in dense urban areas, when a vehicle could drive itself to a more cost-efficient out-of-town storage and charging facility. Therefore much of this infrastructure, especially within the city, will find itself redundant, freeing up vast areas of valuable land for new uses. 


The Scottish Government has taken a leading role with its 2015 Communities Empowerment Act and subsequent 2016 Land Reform Act to enable local communities to purchase land. However, with its aim of 1m acres of Scotland owned by communities by 2020 only just over halfway there at the time of writing in 2019, it is apparent that this is not as accessible as it seems. Similarly, without a strong vision of what cities could look like if we used public spaces for the public good, the then commercial interests will likely be the ones to steer us towards their vision of what is beneficial for them. Private organisations tend to be more forward-looking than public bodies, and there is a danger that by the time local councils get round to purchasing land for public good, it might have already risen so much in value that it is only viable for commercial development – an issue that can also be mitigated through forward-planning.  



In the early 1900’s it took only 10 to 15 years for cars to replace horses as the main means of transportation. In that transition, many jobs were displaced, and much infrastructure which had previously catered to the horse and cart (such as the carriage house) were rendered useless. Now, these spaces have been transformed — carriage houses have been converted into desirable mews houses, breweries, hotels, and more.

As a result of the decline of the manufacturing industry, huge amounts of land, hosting now decommissioned factories, were turned to brownfield sites. Positive outcomes of this result in places like Canvey Wick in Essex, a former oil refinery that has been rewilded. Described as a “brownfield rainforest” by Natural England officer Dr Chris Gibson, it is now designated a Site of Scientific Interest (SSI) due to its abundance of wildlife. On the other side of the coin the rise of ‘pile-em high,’ often poorly made private sector student housing (a sector now worth an estimated £46bn) gives insight into another possible future for unused urban space. 


— Participate in some clandestine Guerilla Gardening

Time = A day
Cost = As little as £10 for compost & seeds

Rather than waiting for the local council to make use of a derelict plot of public land (could be as small as a square meter), take the lead to make it what you would like to see. For years, Guerilla Gardeners have been making the changes to their local areas that they would like to see. Local Guerilla Gardening groups can be found online – or start your own!

— Support a local COMMUNITY BUYOUT

Time = Low to support, High to organise
Cost = Many communities achieve this with grants & fundraisers

A community buyout is when a community group comes together to take on an existing business, asset, or in the case of a community land buyout (prevalent in Scotland), land. Through supporting a local community buyout, you are safeguarding an asset against the type of future described in this consequence. 

The unintended consequences of:

Someone once told us that ‘policy can only ever react to change,’ suggesting that policy-making must always play catch-up to private sector innovation. We didn’t agree — while one cannot predict the future, anticipating the future is a feasible and fruitful activity. To explore this further, we designed a tool called Unintended Consequences to help us anticipate change, and tested it out on Autonomous Vehicles. What follows are a series of possible Unintended Consequences of Autonomous Vehicles on the urban environment — in some cases we’ve used our company’s home city, Glasgow, as an example.

Before diving straight into the consequences of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), it is worth acknowledging the core differences between human-driven vehicles of today and the AVs of tomorrow. Commonly accepted projections, like those listed immediately below, often end up being the focal point of discussions about the future. Instead, we see these as jumping off points — points from which we can start thinking about the more complex, less imagined futures, which help us to start having a meaningful discussion about the kind of changes we want to see.

The four core differences that set up our scenarios are:

— Speed

When humans no longer drive, two things are radically reduced: stopping distance and traffic. Half of stopping distance at 20mph and a fifth at 70mph is accountable to human reaction time. When replacing a driver with an algorithm, the maximum safe speed increases. Similarly, traffic currently has a stop-start style of movement and traffic lights at junctions allow only one lane at a time to pass. Both of these are traffic behaviours that algorithms can eliminate, reducing time spent at low speeds or idling. The same principle can be applied to tailbacks caused by traffic accidents (drivers are the cause of around  94% of road accidents).


— Cost

The commonly accepted model for autonomous vehicles is that few people will actually own one. Cars today have incredibly low utilisation rates, spending 95% of their life cycle parked, however, through using a fleet model, where citizens access cars instead of owning them, AVs are likely to have much higher utilisation costs. With this increase in utilisation, we can expect a much lower cost of operation — as a comparison, think of the cost of a bus or a taxi minus the cost of the human driver.

Attention

Since the commuter does not need to drive, their attention is liberated to more fruitful activities that make the journey more enjoyable — studies show that commuters who take public transport are happier than those who drive. As time travelling can be put to productive use, commuters’ sensitivities to journey lengths are likely to decrease.

Safety

When the blame for a crash can be pointed at an algorithm that belongs to a car manufacturer, you can be sure that they will do all they can to make it as safe as possible. Despite the high number of road accident deaths per year (37,133 in the US in 2017 for example), we collectively shrug this off since 94% of car crashes today are attributable to human error. However, when there is no individual to point the blame at, we demand justice for the deaths of innocents. Already this can be seen in the heightened attention given to the 5 deaths (4 in the US and 1 in China) that have occurred whilst the Tesla Autopilot was engaged.

— Snapshot story

While it could be said that riders were overjoyed with the benefits the autonomous vehicle brought, the same could not be said about big retail. The retailers that had built their empires of many small local stores near transport hubs and thoroughfares were the first to disappear. Following quickly in their footsteps were those who were too slow to adjust their presence to online, and who failed to maximise delivered-to-your-door models.

As riders built up a tolerance for distance, and autonomous vehicles made next hour deliveries a reality, they started to get much more picky and intentional about where they went for their daily shopping. Stumbling into the local convenience store on the way home from work was a thing of the past, and instead the independent grocers in the neighbouring area was much more likely to get a visit. Similarly, the idea of spending hours trawling around a plethora of different clothing stores seemed laughable compared to the ease of having the equivalent of the fitting room delivered to you at home. 

— How did we get here?

As people make the crucial transition from driving cars to riding in cars, relationship with space, distance, and time will shift. Regaining hours of lost productive time each day, people will experience a liberation of their attention, massively reducing the opportunity cost of time spent travelling, and thus increasing tolerance to travelling long distances. This, coupled with a developing logistics infrastructure will likely have a profound impact on brick and mortar retail, and will threaten/challenge, not just businesses, but whole retail districts whose value is dependant on convenience by proximity.

— What policy makers can do about it

Like many other major cities, Glasgow’s city and city centre strategies are heavily reliant on maintaining the city as a retail hub; the current city centre strategy outlines in its 50-year vision that Glasgow aims to be the ‘top UK retail centre outside of London’s West End.’ Placing all their eggs in the basket of the status quo vision of retail needs to be reconsidered in anticipation of considerable changes likely to be brought about by AV’s. In a scenario where convenience by proximity loses its value, retail districts like the ‘Style Mile’ will need to quickly adapt to avoid leaving a vacuum in city centres. Consider reducing reliance on retail (and retail districts), and prepare for a changing retail landscape by diversifying the use of central city space with other commercial activities as well as social or cultural activities.

— Analogous examples

“It was easy to predict mass car ownership but hard to predict Walmart.” This apparent Carl Sagan quote speaks to the wave of unintended consequences brought about by the automotive revolution, and the role that cars have played in shaping the environment. In the same way that cars allowed for the out-of-town megastore or shopping centre, so too will autonomous vehicles reshape the retail industry of tomorrow. 
The most notable example of the consequences of cheaper deliveries is the impact of Deliveroo, JustEat and UberEats on restaurants, fast food, takeaways. Higher quality eateries can reach more people, some even morphing into so-called ‘Dark Kitchens’ to satisfy this shifting landscape.

— Take action

Shop online with Amazon alternatives
Time = A couple extra minutes per online purchase
Cost = Same (sometimes cheaper!)


Amazon won’t be the only to benefit from the autonomous revolution. Using Amazon like a search engine and then purchasing direct from sellers (who are more likely to pay their taxes and treat staff fairly) is becoming more widespread. Alternatively, search for alternative ethical suppliers of product categories.

Support Meanwhile Spaces
Time = Low (support a space) to High (set up a space)
Cost = Variable


‘Meanwhile Spaces’ are empty retail units where the use of temporary contracts are allowing community groups, small businesses or individuals to move in and set up shop, on the understanding that they will leave within an allotted time. Find meanwhile spaces nearby and support them in order to help build a case for new kinds of use for these underused ‘retail spaces,’ or take advantage of any local support to set up a meanwhile space yourself.



— Snapshot story

At first, there was a medley of transport services. Car brands, ride-sharing services, data companies, and AI startups had all pitched in. Each had their own unique offering, but over time the AV space became a fevered battleground and the smaller services were picked off or acquired one-by-one. When the dust settled, there was just a handful of private companies which had established their dominance over the roads. With this newfound power, they discovered a new muscle; now, not only did they have control of the roads, but crucially, they also had control of the way traffic moved. 

Soon after, riders saw ‘premium subscriptions’ being advertised, but at the extortionate prices most ignored them, besides the perks of premium weren’t particularly obvious. But little by little riders noticed small changes to their commutes — it seemed to take longer, there were a few lanes in the road which always seemed empty, and at peak times it seemed like someone else always got picked up immediately while you waited. It took a moment to put two and two together, but when the first luxury vehicle with tinted windows whooshed past in the rush hour migration it was clear that the roads, once a cornerstone of public infrastructure, had been invaded by corporate interests.

— How did we get here?

As we move away from vehicle ownership and towards autonomous, access-based transport systems, not only are we outsourcing the day-to-day admin and maintenance associated with vehicle ownership, but we’re also collectively letting go of the control we have of the flow of traffic. Existing analogues (ridesharing and on-demand transportation services) are already exerting their influence on how the road is used, controlling supply and demand with tools like surge pricing. As private entities gain more control over the flow of traffic, there is a danger that access to the road, one of the most central pieces of public infrastructure, will no longer be equitable.

— What policy makers can do about it

While current public transport systems aim to provide equitable access through good coverage of a city, there is little incentive for private transport companies to do the same, and areas or communities which aren’t profitable will likely suffer from massive inequalities of access. There is a unique opportunity for public bodies to preemptively address this challenge through implementing policy which prevents monopolisation, whilst supporting, nurturing, or partnering with efforts to provide an equitable autonomous transport system. A great example of success here is UK local councils’ work in supporting Co-wheels, a car club operating as a social enterprise working to develop and improve access to car use. 

— Analogous examples

In Russia a ‘special highway’ links the Kremlin with Vladimir Putin’s residence 14 miles outside Moscow, and is reserved for the use of the political elite. In the same way that political power has influenced the use of the roads in Moscow at the expense of citizens, so too may corporate power influence the use of the road at the expense of the poor.

This future is with us in a small way today in the form of Uber’s surge charges and rumours of further pricing discrimination. Particularly during key moments of public transport stress – triggered by breakdowns or adverse weather – those who are willing to pay the extortionate surge pricing can continue on their day, whilst others must make-do with second-rate service.

— Take action

#deleteuber
Time = 1 minute
Cost = £0


Finding other mobility options or ride-hailing services means helping to stop a company that has more or less promised its investors a monopoly. There are plenty of other options out there, from replacing some of your transport needs with a car club, or simply finding a more local ride-hailing service. 




— Snapshot story

With a trip to the shops, office or pub costing less than a cup of coffee, city-dwellers were quickly giving up on public transport and opting for a more convenient means of door-to-door travel. 

At first, this was a novel luxury. What were once monotonous commutes and tiring errands were now much simpler, faster and more productive. But soon the culture of door-to-door travel started to show its dark side. Without the walk to the local bus stop or the dash to the supermarket, the daily ten thousand steps seemed a much more challenging goal. In addition, the constant trips between a few known locations, and an obsession with travelling from A to B as efficiently as possible was making people lonely — serendipitous encounters, chance discovery, and spontaneity all seemed to be relics of the past. 

With sedentary lifestyles being the primary contributing factor to several of the major chronic diseases, health care professionals were alarmed to see that autonomous vehicles were causing a surge in the amount of time populations were spending on their backside. Not only that, but the sharp rise in depression and loneliness had crept in through the blindspot of a world enthralled by the sheer convenience of autonomous travel, yet oblivious to its isolating effects. By the time the NHS noticed the spiralling human and economic costs of AVs to its overburdened service, it was already too late.


— How did we get here?

The massive reduction in price-per-mile of autonomous vehicles is likely to significantly impact the choices people make around their daily commute. While this may not eradicate the demand for public transport, it is likely that there will be a notable increase in the people choosing to use private vehicles to get them from door-to-door.

Currently, the bulk of the conversation around AVs’ impact on health is focussed on collisions and collision prevention. While AVs are likely to offset health problems, as well as injuries and deaths which are related to pollution and car accidents, more reliance on door-to-door transport is likely to increase the amount of time spent sitting, a factor which contributes massively to the chronic conditions which kill most people in the world. In addition to the consequences to physical health, there will likely also be some consequences for citizens’ mental health — as more and more people directly travel between known destinations, their potential to add to their social circles will contract, contributing to more loneliness and depression.

— What policy makers can do about it

Initiatives focussed directly on transportation might consider investing in public autonomous transport systems, more social forms of autonomous transport (think ridesharing meets BumbleBFF), and/or multimodal transportation that enables a combination of walking, cycling, private AVs and public AVs. 

Effective transport systems need mobility solutions and urban planning to support one another.  Good urban planning should emphasise walkability (see the 'Sprawling Autonomous Cities' consequence) and encouraging serendipitous interactions on a local level. Interactions can be encouraged through community allotments on disused land and continuation of the brilliant Green Health work demonstrating the cost-benefit of natural spaces in alleviation mental health issues.

— Analogous examples

The invention of the personal computer has had a massive impact on the world, and one of its many unintended consequences has been on the nature of childhood play. While childhood previously involved more outdoor and social forms of play, in the digital age play is much more solitary and sedentary. In much the same way that personal computing has changed social and physical activity for children, AVs have the potential to massively change social and physical habits of adults.

The author Yuval Noah Harari argues that the invention of agriculture, while proclaimed as a great leap forward for humanity, was actually an illusion of progress and instead contributed to increased inequality, longer working hours, and new ailments such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. The invention of agriculture is a great example of a progress trap, a condition in which the pursuit of perceived progress introduces problems for which there isn’t the resource or will to solve — once you build a system around progress trap technology, such as AV’s, it is near impossible to go back. 

— Take action

Track your habits
Time: 5 mins
Cost: Free with a Smartphone

Through self-tracking things like your daily steps and location, you are likely to build an awareness of how external factors influence your habits. When you change jobs, and have a different commute, take a look at how your data has changed, and try to diagnose what it is that’s causing habit changes. What gets measured gets managed.

Carry Waterproofs
Time = 5 mins
Cost = £5 to £35


It has started raining and you left this morning without any sensible waterproof. Let’s face it, catching a taxi looks like an attractive option right now? Make that easy choice harder by making sure you always have a mac in a sac on you at all times to benefit from urban walking come rain or shine.

Make your city a National Park City
Time = Low (sign a petition) to High (set up campaign yourself)
Cost = Free

After five years of campaigning,
London became the first National Park City in July 2019. This creates a platform for protecting green spaces, advocating for more and providing a focal point for allowing residents to find out how to take advantage of their green spaces more easily – all contributing to better mental and physical health in urban environments. The next city with its eyes on National Park City status is Glasgow.



— Snapshot story

With the stress of city living and an increasing allure of being closer to nature, inner-city residents did what they thought was only right and fled.

It was both an economic argument and an emotional one. With transport being cheaper and easier than ever thanks to autonomous vehicles, the commute was suddenly useful time that could be used to kick back and have breakfast, get a bit of extra work done, or sneak in that addictive Netflix episode during the journey. This was the rationale that motivated many residents to up sticks and move to the burbs in the promise of that life of wellbeing they saw in their Instagram feeds. The major homebuilders were quick to pick up on this, building sprawling new housing estates in which everyone could get their little square of walled garden – where distance didn’t matter because those fancy autonomous vehicles make it just so easy to get to the nearby yoga studio or take a spontaneous trip to the countryside pub. 

Even when people noticed that their sought-after greenbelt was being eaten up by low-density housing and journeys that used to walked or cycled were increasingly being made by AVs, nobody couldn’t stand in the face of achieving ‘the lifestyle.’ “Swap your tiny house plants for a real garden” was the oft-repeated persuasion over a raw lunch or almond milk flat white, “escape the ‘Glasgow Effect’ – go on, it’s good for your health.”

— How did we get here?

The trifecta of faster journey times, reduced cost per distance travelled, and a decreased sensitivity to travel times can be thought of as a spark, which when added to a potent tinderbox, will trigger rapid change. That potent tinderbox of today is high house prices that has made it harder to afford mortgages, resulting in smaller living arrangements. This urbanisation and decrease in living spaces is resulting in a yearning for green spaces and nature. An obvious indicator of this is the explosive growth for houseplants that has taken over every trendy household (trendy households often being the precursor for overly expensive housing). This yearning for greenery and nature will contribute to the allure of peri-urban living.

— What policy makers can do about it

AVs might make suburbia more of an option, however it is not the only future open to us. AVs also make the case for a turbocharged public transport system and facilitating a true sharing economy. The city of Helsinki is supporting a collaboration between Muji and Finnish AV company Sensible 4 on the implementation of an all-weather autonomous shuttle bus in the city of Espoo. The project envisions an approach to autonomous transport which promotes shared mobility, and enhances the experience of urban life. Urban planners and policy makers can promote similar infrastructure such as (autonomous) public transport and walkability that makes our cities more sustainable and enjoyable for all.

— Analogous examples

Urban density is intrinsically linked to technologies that create ease of movement. Steel frame construction and the elevator proved to be the primary engine of urban density over the last century through enabling vertical exploration, whilst cars and trains enabled cities to spread horizontally.
To see the future of cities designed for vehicles over people in the world today, we need only look to the United States. Cities like Atlanta, Cape Coral in Florida and Los Angeles have created lifestyles dependent on vehicles and a severe lack of opportunity for those who can’t afford one.

— Take action

Participate in your community
Time = 1 or 2 hours a week
Cost = FreeLean into the benefits that the city can offer: a strong presence of community.


For example, GoodGym gives you the opportunity to replace your (let’s face it, boring) gym workout with participating in group trash-cleanup runs or gardening for an elder neighbour. By investing energy in our community we make high density living a dream, not a drag.

Start a Baugruppen project
Time = Years
Cost = Your mortgage


If you have a mortgage, lots of time, an appetite for project management and know other like-minded urban visionaries then you have all the ingredients for starting a Baugruppen or “building group”. Fed up with substandard housing, these building groups pool together a collective mortgage to buy land, hire an architect and construct a building that houses everyone separately, yet with shared spaces for co-living. Not for the faint-hearted.


— Snapshot story

As autonomous vehicles started to become the norm, it became clear just how much of the city had been built around the car. City dwellers were delighted to see much of it start to disappear, rejoicing at the dismantling of unattractive billboards, followed soon after by the clearing of signposts, traffic lights, and electric car charging points, all of which were being increasingly referred to as ‘roadside clutter.’ 

As the city morphed to adapt to this new technology, roads got thinner, and most forms of inner-city parking became redundant; roadside parking, multi-storey car parks, supermarket car parks, underground garages all now opened up, ready for a new use, full of promise and possibility. 

Citizens were excited, and there was no shortage of public imagination around what this swathe of new space might be used for — parks, walkways, community gardens, playgrounds, and outdoor cinemas were all keenly anticipated. It was soon clear that this was not to be. Most of these now-defunct sites were in private hands, closed off to public intervention, and instead were being sold off to developers for a quick buck. The public’s dreams were slowly being crushed, replaced by buildings which looked awfully similar to a low-cost student housing block. 

— How did we get here?

Much of the physical infrastructure in cities have been built around cars. Some pieces of infrastructure were created to influence the behaviour of the driver — signs, traffic lights, speed cameras, and road bumps will all be removed, or else replaced with more integrated and hidden infrastructure that can communicate with the car. Other infrastructure was built to service the needs of the car such as car washes, petrol stations, charging ports, on-street and off-street parking. With the high utilisation of AV’s, there will be a massive reduction in the total number of vehicles, and the number of stationary vehicles during peak times. Vehicles will likely be recharged in moments when they are stationary, and it would make little economic sense for this to happen in dense urban areas, when a vehicle could drive itself to a more cost-efficient out-of-town storage and charging facility. Therefore much of this infrastructure, especially within the city, will find itself redundant, freeing up vast areas of valuable land for new uses. 

— What policy makers can do about it

The Scottish Government has taken a leading role with its 2015 Communities Empowerment Act and subsequent 2016 Land Reform Act to enable local communities to purchase land. However, with its aim of 1m acres of Scotland owned by communities by 2020 only just over halfway there at the time of writing in 2019, it is apparent that this is not as accessible as it seems. Similarly, without a strong vision of what cities could look like if we used public spaces for the public good, the then commercial interests will likely be the ones to steer us towards their vision of what is beneficial for them. Private organisations tend to be more forward-looking than public bodies, and there is a danger that by the time local councils get round to purchasing land for public good, it might have already risen so much in value that it is only viable for commercial development – an issue that can also be mitigated through forward-planning.  

— Analogous examples

In the early 1900’s it took only 10 to 15 years for cars to replace horses as the main means of transportation. In that transition, many jobs were displaced, and much infrastructure which had previously catered to the horse and cart (such as the carriage house) were rendered useless. Now, these spaces have been transformed — carriage houses have been converted into desirable mews houses, breweries, hotels, and more.

As a result of the decline of the manufacturing industry, huge amounts of land, hosting now decommissioned factories, were turned to brownfield sites. Positive outcomes of this result in places like Canvey Wick in Essex, a former oil refinery that has been rewilded. Described as a “brownfield rainforest” by Natural England officer Dr Chris Gibson, it is now designated a Site of Scientific Interest (SSI) due to its abundance of wildlife. On the other side of the coin the rise of ‘pile-em high,’ often poorly made private sector student housing (a sector now worth an estimated £46bn) gives insight into another possible future for unused urban space. 

— Take action

Participate in some clandestine Guerilla Gardening
Time = A day
Cost = As little as £10 for compost & seeds

Rather than waiting for the local council to make use of a derelict plot of public land (could be as small as a square meter), take the lead to make it what you would like to see. For years, Guerilla Gardeners have been making the changes to their local areas that they would like to see. Local Guerilla Gardening groups can be found online – or start your own!

Support a local community buyout

Time = Low to support, High to organise
Cost = Many communities achieve this with grants & fundraisers

A community buyout is when a community group comes together to take on an existing business, asset, or in the case of a community land buyout (prevalent in Scotland), land. Through supporting a local community buyout, you are safeguarding an asset against the type of future described in this consequence. 

unintended consequences is a project by studio andthen

about andthen

Andthen is a design strategy consultancy that blends design research and futures thinking to help organisations with early-stage innovation challenges.

about the project

This project used a tool we developed called ‘Unintended Consequences,’ as a way to explore the effects of Autonomous Vehicles on an urban context, with a view to pushing beyond the normal discourse surrounding AVs in order to anticipate unforeseen opportunities and risks that can shape decision making today.

get in touch

If would like us to help you explore the Unintended Consequences of something, commission an Unintended Consequences report, or would like support working on your long-term strategy, please reach out using the contact details below:

Santini Basra
Founder and Director Andthen
santini@studioandthen.com

Twitter: @studioandthen
Instagram: @studioandthen

Read more about Unintended Consequences here.

unintended consequences is a project by studio andthen

Find out more by reading this medium article.

about andthen

Andthen is a design strategy consultancy that blends design research and futures thinking to help organisations with early-stage innovation challenges.

about the project

This project used a tool we developed called ‘Unintended Consequences,’ as a way to explore the effects of Autonomous Vehicles on an urban context, with a view to pushing beyond the normal discourse surrounding AVs in order to anticipate unforeseen opportunities and risks that can shape decision making today.

get in touch

If would like us to help you explore the Unintended Consequences of something, commission an Unintended Consequences report, or would like support working on your long-term strategy, please reach out using the contact details below:

Santini Basra
Founder and Director Andthen
santini@studioandthen.com

Twitter: @studioandthen
Instagram: @studioandthen